From JFK to Romney
His thumbs twitched slightly as he waited to be introduced, the only betrayal of nervousness for what would be perhaps the most important speech of his life to that point. As the candidate rose to give his address, he faced a crowd of skeptics who wondered if his religion disqualified him to be president. By the time he was done, if he had not convinced everyone in the hall, he at least had punctured the issue and changed the course of his campaign.
That speech by Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy as he ran for president more than 47 years ago serves as a historical backdrop of sorts today as another Massachusetts politician seeking the White House, former Republican governor Mitt Romney, delivers his own speech on religion. Just as Kennedy confronted worries about his Catholicism, Romney hopes to overcome suspicions of his Mormonism. The echo half a century later offers a convenient way for Romney not only to address concerns about his faith but to link himself to the popular 35th president.
The environment, though, was different in 1960, making comparisons imprecise at best. For one thing, Romney has other, perhaps bigger political problems. Kennedy was arguing for keeping religion out of public leadership, while Romney plans to discuss the commonalities and importance of different faiths in public life. Kennedy's challenge was assuring the nation that he believed in strict separation of church and state. Romney wants to convince a narrower, more religious audience in the Republican primary electorate of almost the opposite, that he will promote more religious values in the public square. "I am not going to be giving a JFK speech," Romney demurred this week. "I am going to be talking about the role of religion, faith in America and in a free society."
Still, his advisers have carefully studied Kennedy's famed speech for lessons on handling the tricky question of a candidate coming from a religion subject to much prejudice. At the time of Kennedy's candidacy, just one other Catholic had ever won a major party nomination, Democrat Alfred E. Smith in 1928, and he went down to defeat at the hands of Republican Herbert Hoover. As 1960 approached, Kennedy decided to take the opposite approach of Smith, who sidestepped the issue of his religion. Kennedy took it head on, first in West Virginia, where he won a crucial primary that led to his nomination, and then again in Texas during the general election in the fall.
As Theodore H. White recounted in his legendary "The Making of the President 1960," Kennedy and his team had hoped the West Virginia primary would have disposed of the issue but "in retrospect, they now knew themselves to have been naÃ¯ve." Rumblings about Kennedy's religion grew following his nomination to the point that a New York Times reporter talking with people during a two-day Kennedy whistlestop trip in California found that "almost every political leader and rank-and-file voter who was interviewed for more than thirty seconds voluntarily breached the subject of religion." A Washington Post columnist wrote that the issue "is rapidly becoming the most explosive and uncertain force of the campaign." Bobby Kennedy, who managed his brother's campaign, said, "Right now, religion is the biggest issue in the South and in the country."
The campaign, worrying that it might lose 15 states, hoped to deal with the religion issue in late October right before the general election but its hand was forced when a group of clergy and lay people calling itself the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom led by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale issued a statement Sept. 7, 1960, asserting that a Catholic president would be "under extreme pressure from the the hierarchy of his church to bring United States foreign policy into line with Vatican objectives." During the California whistle stop after the Peale group's statement, a heckler asked Kennedy if he believed "all Protestants are heretics." "No," he replied, "and I hope you don't believe all Catholics are."
To stanch the bleeding, Kennedy decided to accept a pending invitation to address the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance, a group of Protestant clergy in Texas, just five days after the Peale group's statement. Kennedy retreated to a room at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to craft a speech along with his adviser, Ted Sorensen. "We can win or lose the election right there in Houston on Monday night," Sorensen told a friend that weekend, according to White's account.
When he arrived in Houston on the evening of Sept. 12, Kennedy found a "sullen, almost hostile audience," White wrote, but by the end, the event concluded "in respect and friendship." Kennedy explicitly affirmed his belief in separation of church and state, saying that he would not take orders from the Vatican and if his faith ever collided with his duty as president he would resign first.
"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source," Kennedy said. He warned that voting against him because he was Catholic would unleash broader religious discrimination. "Today I may be the victim but tomorrow it may be you until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril."
He added: "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me."
After his speech, he took questions from the audience of Baptist ministers. They grilled him on why 12 years earlier he had refused to attend the consecreation of an interfaith chapel (because he had been invited as a spokesman for his church, which he did not want to be), whether as president he could attend services in other churches (yes, he said), how he would deal with persecution of Protestant missionaries in Catholic countries (he would support freedom for everyone) and whether he would accept church direction (he would not brook "an interference with the American political system").
Strange as it may sound in today's 24/7 Internet world, Kennedy's speech was not carried live on national television. Instead, snippets of it were shown on the network evening newscasts the next night, and supporters made copies of the film and showed it around the country themselves. But the appearance made a big impression nonetheless. "Kennedy spoke out more clearly than he ever has before on the 'religious question,' a possibly pivotal election issue here in Texas and in some other Southern states," the Post's front-page news story said the next day. The Times editorialized that "in the light of his own statements Senator Kennedy's religious affiliation is irrelevant to his fitness for the Presidency."
Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon agreed, praising Kennedy's speech and disclaiming any concern about his rival's religion. "I certainly don't question it," Nixon said the day after the speech, "and if I don't, I certainly don't feel others should raise a question about it since he had covered it so thoroughly."
And Peale then quit the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, distancing himself from its earlier statement and saying he had little to do with it.
The rest, as they say, is history.
-- Peter Baker
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